One of the many children said to have been fathered by the mythical King Minos of Crete was a boy named Glaucus (or Glaucos), not to be confused with the minor sea-god of the same name. Despite being royalty and a descendant of Zeus (as the lightning-god was King Minos’ father), young Glaucus was sadly not destined for glory. Instead, the indiscriminate Fates allotted Glaucus to suffer a most bizarre death, striking the prince down before he could reach adulthood. On the peculiar demise of the princeling, a scholar known as Pseudo-Apollodorus (c. 1st-2nd centuries) wrote, “Now Glaucos, when he was still a young child, fell into a jar of honey while he was chasing a mouse, and was drowned” (Apollodorus, Library, 3.3.1). This horrible accidental death had occurred without any witnesses, and therefore nobody knew where to look for Glaucus when the prince’s absence was finally noted. King Minos was at such a loss about where to look, and so desperate to find his son, that the king eventually gathered together a large band of wisemen and magicians who were renowned for their talents in the supernatural arts of divination and sorcery. The most promising of the bunch was an impressive figure named Polyeidus (or Polyidos), who traced his ancestry back to a miracle-working healer named Melampus. Polyeidus shared his ancestor’s great affinity for divination, but as for the other magical and miraculous abilities wielded by Melampus—which were supposedly taught to the legendary figure by snakes—these even greater talents eluded Polyeidus, who could not escape the shadow of his famous forebear. Nevertheless, for the task of locating the body of Glaucus, Polyeidus was perfectly capable of fulfilling that mission. With his help, the vat of honey was successfully discovered, as was the body of the young prince within it.
King Minos was understandably devastated when he discovered the terrible fate that had befallen his son, and in his grief the king grasped the possibility that a miracle might occur. Minos, like Polyeidus, was aware of the tales about the ancient healer, Melampus, and the great magical deeds that the legendary figure was said to have been able to accomplish. King Minos suspected that Polyeidus, too, harbored the ability to perform miracles, and he clung to this hope despite Polyeidus’ insistence that he had not inherited Melampus’ miraculous powers. Although Polyeidus was great at divination and knew some other tricks of the trade, he had nothing within his arsenal of knowledge that could potentially resurrect the dead. King Minos responded poorly to Polyeidus’ protests and explanations. Unwilling to let Polyeidus go, King Minos instead decided to lock the healer in a room with the body of young Glaucus. This decision—curiously enough—would come to greatly benefit the lives of both King Minos and Polyeidus, not to mention the life of young Glaucus.
Polyeidus spent a long, unspecified time locked up with the body of Glaucus. During his imprisonment in the morbid cell, Polyeidus, curiously, had a slithery supernatural experience—one that he had long been waiting for. As the myth goes, snakes eventually began slinking their way into the cell where Polyeidus was trapped with the body of the prince. Polyeidus, despite his ancestral affiliation with snakes, was at that time annoyed with the creatures and he feared that they might damage the remains of the king’s son. This caused him to throw stones at them, eventually killing one of the snakes that had slithered into the room. Yet, the appearance of these snakes, and especially what happened to the injured one, would change Polyeidus’ career forever. On Minos’ imprisonment of the diviner, and the bizarre snake-filled scene that ensued, Apollodorus wrote:
“Minos declared, however, that he wanted him [Glaucus] back alive, and Polyidos was shut in with the dead body. When he was at his wit’s end, he saw a snake approach the body; and fearing that he himself would be killed if any harm came to the body, he threw a stone at the snake and killed it. But then another snake appeared, and seeing that the first one was dead, it went off and then came back again carrying a herb, which it applied to the whole body of its fellow. No sooner was the herb applied than the first snake came back to life. Viewing all this with wonderment, Polyidos applied to the same herb to the body of Glaucos and brought him back to life.” (Apollodorus, Library, 3.3.2).
As the quote conveys, Polyeidus, while he was locked in a room with the body of Glaucus, finally had an encounter with mysterious snakes that imparted on him the ability to perform a miracle. Just as snakes had long ago helped Melampus to perform great supernatural feats, the creatures were now providing Polyeidus with the ability to resurrect the dead. After the application of the mysterious herb was completed, Glaucus came back to life. Elated King Minos of Crete eagerly opened the door, and after being reunited with his son, the king finally agreed to let Polyeidus leave Crete. Yet, there were conditions for his release—Minos first wanted Polyeidus to instruct Glaucus in the ways of divination. These terms were agreed to and Polyeidus quickly showed the prince the tricks of the trade in secret. Unfortunately for King Minos and Glaucus, the valuable knowledge was only temporary, for as Polyeidus was sailing away, he used some more of his newfound magical abilities to suddenly strip from Glaucus’ mind all of the knowledge about divination that had been taught.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (The flies and the honey pot, by E. & W. Anstie Ltd. (Publisher), [Public Domain, Open Access] via Creative Commons and the New York Public Library).
- Apollodorus, The Library of Greek Mythology, translated by Robin Hard. New York, Oxford University Press, 1997.